Have-a-go marketers are no heroes

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

June 29, 2017
Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

What have professional services staff done to deserve such scorn from academics? Having worked in the marketing department of two well-known British universities over the past eight years, I can honestly say that the vast majority of professional staff treat academics with the respect and reverence their hard work and achievements deserve. We would never dream of telling them how to do their jobs. Unfortunately, that same courtesy is all too often denied us.

The higher education press is full of articles by academics dismissing the value of professional services staff. In 2015, for example, Laurie Taylor, the broadcaster and former sociology academic, gleefully recounted how he had told a conference of administrators that however competent they were, “their work would always be regarded by the typical academic as little more than pen-pushing”.

I bear some of the scars of such attitudes personally. My mid-ranking role requires a lot of close liaison with academic colleagues. On the whole, it goes smoothly, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to defend my actions on behalf of the wider marketing department, explaining why we do things the way we do. So many academics seem to believe that they know better, and that the way they would do things is automatically the right way.

Welcome to the world of the have-a-go marketer. These senior academics mean well, but their actions almost always do more harm than good to their institutions’ reputations. They will, for example, bypass any established briefing system, ignore their nominated marketing officer/manager/coordinator/team and disregard carefully cultivated visual brand guidelines as they rustle up a poster for an event that they’ve just decided should happen. Tomorrow.

Or they’ll divine that what is really needed to address a shortage of undergraduate applications is a one-off advert in a magazine read by many of their peers but none of their prospective students. They will find a spare few hundred pounds in someone’s budget to act on this hunch, creating their own artwork without consulting the internal graphic designers and marketing copywriters.

Or – and this is the easiest thing for them to do because it’s quick and free – they’ll set up a brand new social media account, declare it official, and proceed to make statements that contrast significantly with our carefully cultivated tone of voice and house style.

Although they account for only a small proportion of academics, have-a-go marketers cause the professionals a significant headache and a shedload of extra work repairing the damage to the institution’s brand. By that stage, they have got bored and moved on to a new pet project. And so the cycle repeats itself.

Take the genuine example of Dr X from the department of Y. The department has been experiencing a gradual decline in undergraduate interest over the past three years. This reflects a sector-wide trend in subject Y but, thankfully, the department’s applicant conversion rate has improved to such an extent that enrolments have been relatively stable compared with other institutions.

Yet Dr X believes that the reduction of applications is a direct consequence of our substandard marketing. When pressed on what he means, Dr X can make only sweeping generalisations, such as that “our website is not as good as some of our competitors”. When presented with focus group testimony to the contrary, Dr X refuses to budge. And when told the statistics on the declining take-up of the subject at school, Dr X continues to deny that wider market factors may be at play.

Recently, I outlined a plan of action for the department. It would start with robust market insight and analysis, followed by an overhaul of student recruitment and communications activities (among other things) and culminating in a highly targeted and integrated digital campaign in the longer term. Alas, Dr X is not interested. Because Dr X knows better than a team of qualified marketing professionals armed with insight, data and knowledge of the sector.

Dr X’s alternative plan is simple yet brilliant. All we need is a one-off, half-page advert (not followed up by any further interventions) in a magazine that Dr X happens to like and that we suspect some schoolteachers of subject Y may read. This, maintains Dr X, will encourage teachers to recommend our university – although it isn’t clear why they would do so merely because they happen upon an advert for it in a cluttered magazine with a small circulation.

In some senses, have-a-go marketers are good for our office morale. Sharing stories of their sometimes very funny antics can brighten up a dull day. But that doesn’t begin to make up for the fundamental lack of respect. While academic colleagues understandably want to maintain their academic freedom, by being so confrontational and interventionist with support staff, the academic have-a-go marketers are unwittingly diminishing our own professional freedom. And that is completely unfair.

So I plead with the academic community: please let professional staff get on with their jobs. We promise that we know what we are doing – and that it will make all our lives a little bit easier.

The writer prefers to remain anonymous.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Have-a-go marketers need to show respect for professional staff

Reader's comments (14)

Having had to endure rants against 'the Centre' about things entirely outwith a) my own department's responsibilities and b) the purpose of the meeting, I can wholly sympathise. Thankfully, that sort were few and far between, although concentrated in certain subject areas.
The important thing is that at least you engaged Dr X with the evidence. Sometimes, what is needed is non-confrontational dialogue between the different camps. Ultimately, we all have the same overall goals in mind (at least we should have!) and can work together with mutual respect.
I wonder if there is any good evidence that it does harm to "disregard carefully cultivated visual brand guidelines"? The problem with the view that a homeogenous "branded" web site is desirable is that it becomes boring and corporate. All individuality is lost. I'd need good evidence to be persiaded that this appeals to prospective students.
The alternative to a website which conforms to the visual and tone-of-voice brand is one which is confusing, schizophrenic and amateurish. And with regards to your comment about it being 'corporate' - well, universities are businesses which rely on fee and grant income to remain a going concern. Try telling Amazon, Coke or Barclays to get rid of their brand guidelines...
Aha the "tone of voice" meme. I recall the hilarity that that caused at Warwick http://www.dcscience.net/2015/04/08/the-university-of-warwick-brings-itself-into-disrepute-four-times-watch-your-tone-of-voice/ It worries me that you regard universities as being the same as Amazon or Barclays. Universities are meant to be honest. Amazon and Barclays have no such scruples, it seems. The people we are trying to attract are young. The young are not attracted by bland uniformity. Again, I ask for some evidence for the claims that you make for the success of your approach. Aggressive assertions are not an adequate substitute for evidence. If you talk to people like that, I'm really not surprised you have troubles with colleagues.
I don't have troubles of this nature particularly, although I'm agreeing with the article as it makes a number of points which the academic community particulary should take heed of. But evidence is aplenty in numerous focus groups and secondary research that's been rigorously conducted by many people over many years. Where would your evidence be that young people (and incidentally we don't only seek to attract young people) are attracted to scatty and cluttered communications, which appear amateurish?
I'm sorry, but focus groups do not constitute evidence. Perhaps cluster randomised tests could produce evidence. Why haven't they been done? And of course the alternative to bland boring uniformity is not necessarily "scatty and cluttered". It might be individual and interesting. Another point is that centrally-controlled web sites are often out of date. Recently it took a stack of emails and many weeks to get a correction made to a web page. It would have taken two minutes if I'd been able to do it myself.
This is not either/or, it is both/and. Academics have knowledge of the specific, unique selling points of their courses. Lose this in the corporate brand and you have a 'product' that will turn potential students off. Marketers have evidence and experience of how to communicate our messages clearly and effectively to potential students. The reality is that when both sides bring mutual respect and a willingness to listen, then we can give applicants a strong and effective sense of what we are trying to do as universities. That is surely better for all?
While I think this article raises valid points it is also worth highlighting the significant diversity in practice between universities where responsibility for recruitment is being shifted towards academics without any supporting training (e.g. In brand guidelines and their role) or downgrading of their other responsibilities. Certainly arrogant and disrespectful behaviour should be called out, but this should also extend to university senior management's attempts to scapegoat untrained academic staff (or marketing departments on reduced funding or staffing for that matter) for falling recruitment income.
I absolutely agree with Marc Allenby that marketing staff and academics should closely cooperate and that a complete separation of 'duties' is the worst that can happen. I am perfectly willing to use my university's corporate design layouts for websites, posters and powerpoint presentations. But as soon as I am told to use images which the marketing officers like although they are misleading and anachronistic, there's something wrong. Some time ago, our marketing department designed a poster for one of our visual culture conferences and cut off the most important part of the background image we had provided. Before we could intervene, all posters had been printed and we had to accept them as they were. There certainly are professors who are very unwilling to let marketing people tell them how to sell their contents. I think, however, that this is mainly a generational problem which demographic change will solve in time. In most cases, I rather feel that conflict arises from structural incoherence in the university administration.
I think this is partly a generational problem because most of my colleagues and I understand the importance of a clear message and identity. The university provides a central message and "branding" for our open day presentations and we supply further text, which is constantly under review. There sometimes is a mismatch in expectations between the marketing team and academic staff but this can be easily resolved. I should say I think there is much room for improvement in certain professional services departments with high turnover and often inexperienced staff but you learn to live with that.
David Colquhoun your response is a perfect example of the problematic way in which academics respond to marketing - academics staff often refuse to trust the professional experience of marketing staff. For everything we do, we are asked for a full body of research to back up each and every decision. Professional staff are not a research team, they are makers and doers who have built up real world experience. For your request for evidence that brand consistency is not a good thing to strive towards, I would flip that and ask you to provide the evidence that is determinantal to recruitment. If you don't trust the professional expertise than the onus should be on you to provide evidence.
agemma - here here.
I think the principle should be to have "brand consistency" while simultaneously leaving space for departments and individuals giving information at open days to do what they feel works. I find that applicants really appreciate getting information about what you're going to do as a student at a particular university. Otherwise it is very hard to differentiate similar programmes. That's an area that academics know best so a flexible approach would work better than one-size-fits-all.

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